Live Show, Drink Included (Holland Park Press)
Below, Vicky answers some questions about writing and her book.
What is it that draws you to the short story form?
What I love about the form is its versatility. A story can span the events of lifetime or it can focus on an hour or two – and everything in between. You can explore characters and ideas. There is room for all kinds of formal experimentation. Also, from a writer’s perspective, although I do spend a long time on each story it’s nothing like the enormous commitment of time and energy that a novel demands. That means you can take more risks.
What is your process when writing short stories? Is your process the same with every story?
My stories usually take a long time to complete and they go through many drafts before I’m happy. They all begin with some kind of spark or element of curiosity. Sometimes it’s a feeling that I want to explore, sometimes there’s a character or a situation that interests me, either in my own life or something I’ve observed around me. It can also be something more abstract: spotting a pattern, or the yoking together of opposites. ‘Downsizing’ came about because I was proof-reading a collection of essays, one of which was about the future of work. I was captivated by the language: ‘symbolic analysts’, ‘portfolio careers’, work as a pool you swim to the centre of rather than a pyramid that you climb. I wanted to create a world in which these phrases had a life.
I never know how a story will end and that can be difficult. The story that took me the longest to complete was ‘An Unplanned Event’. I wrote about eight pages and then got stuck, so I put it away and forgot all about it. More than ten years later I came across it by accident on my computer and decided to see if I could finish it. In the interim, the person who had inspired the character of Eric had died, so I suppose that suggested the ending. But what really made a difference was when I had to attend a health and safety course run by an enthusiastic ex-army man. That gave me the extra strand that pulled the whole story together. I am attracted to absurdity.
Do you have a favourite short story or short story writer? What is it you admire?
Raymond Carver was a huge influence on me when I was starting out. I admire the economy of his writing and the way he pushes realism to the point where ordinary life becomes lyrical and strange.
What I want from any piece of writing is that it engages me emotionally and that it also somehow surprises me. I’m not looking for electric shocks or a twist. I want to feel that I don’t know where we’re going, and yet for the ending to feel right when we get there. Writers who do for me that include: Alice Munro, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Kevin Barry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Carys Davies and Otessa Moshfegh. Individual stories that I have a special affection for: ‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Grandmother’s Potatoes’, by A. L. Kennedy, ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘Reunion’ both by John Cheever, Haruki Murakami’s ‘Super Frog Saves Tokyo’ and Miranda July’s ‘Man on the Stairs’.
What advice would you give to new writers who want to write a collection of stories?
I’m not the best person to give advice on that. It took me a very long time to assemble this collection. I didn’t set out to write stories on a theme or stories that linked together, although that seems to be what publishers prefer. I start writing when I have something I want to explore.
Where’s your favourite place to write and why?
I have a small box room at home: some bookshelves, a filing cabinet, a desk and a computer. I used to do my creative work in bed to keep it separate from teaching prep and report writing, but then my laptop died – which is probably just as well because writing in bed is terrible for your back.
What was the hardest story in your collection to write and why?
The last story in the collection, ‘Into the Valley’, felt like a new departure for me. It’s less structured than some of my other stories and there’s very little invention. It’s based on what happened when my mother-in-law died in 2010. I was alone with her at the very end. That moment and the whole experience of end-of-life care in a hospital had a profound impact on me. I had never been close to death before. I was amazed at how unprepared I was.
When we got back home again, I felt like a traveller returning from another world. I was desperate to pin down what I had seen, but I struggled to find a shape for what started out as a sprawling mass of detail. I wrote and wrote and revised and rewrote. I spent months worrying away at it and ended up with an 8,000 word monster. At one point I had an email from Sigrid Rausing at Granta to say that it was under consideration there. I also got a nice email from someone at the LRB to say she’d be happy to see other work from me in the future. But in the end everyone rejected it.
I put the story aside for a year, then went back and cut it in half and sent it to the Harvard Review in America. The editor had just been through the death of her own mother so it spoke to her and she published it at the end of 2012.
The challenge of ‘Into the Valley’ was that the events it described were so close to life. I changed the names but I knew where it came from. I had a responsibility to be respectful, but I also wanted to represent the truth of the experience. It was also very difficult to know how to edit it down to 4,000 words. I had to let enough time pass before I could do that effectively.
Buy Live Show Drink Included here.
Vicky Grut was born in South Africa and lived in Madagascar and Italy before moving to England in 1980 to study fine art at Goldsmiths. Her first short story was published in 1994 in Metropolitan Magazine and since then her work has appeared in new writing collections and literary magazines around the world, including collections published by Picador, Granta, Duckworths, Serpents’ Tail and Bloomsbury. Vicky was twice a finalist for the Asham Award. Her nonfiction essay Into the Valley, published in Harvard Review #43, was listed as one of the Notable Essays of 2012 in Cheryl Strayed’s edition of Best American Essays, 2013.